By RICKY J. DUARTE
In the world of musical theatre, as with most horror films, there are certain expected tropes one may anticipate. The hero will croon about their hopes and desires in their “I want” song, the act one finale will often include a high-energy ensemble dance number, and by the show’s end, if there hasn’t been a “dream ballet” sequence, the hero will inevitably end their journey with a big, belty, heartwarming showstopper. Writers/composers Michael R. Jackson and Anna K. Jacobs don’t write those kinds of musicals.
In 2022, Jackson won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for A Strange Loop, a profound personal story about the lived experience of a young queer Black aspiring artist. Anna K. Jacobs’ award-winning musical, POP!, explores the possible suspects in the shooting of Andy Warhol, utilizing his infamous Factory chums and a delightfully memorable score.
Now, these two powerhouse artists have combined their talents to adapt a horror film, with unexpected and uncommon subject matter for musical theatre – the 2007 horror/dark comedy Teeth. The film, written and directed by Michael Lichtenstein, tells of Beth, a Christian, abstinence-preaching high school student, who unexpectedly discovers her body is capable of an unusual feat of “adaptation” via the folkloric anomaly, vagina dentata. Lichtenstein has gladly offered support throughout the development process, first conceived over a decade ago.
In the musical TEETH, Jackson and Jacobs explore the film’s themes of religious trauma, sexual exploration and female empowerment, while expounding on the them through music and song.
The show will soon begin its Off-Broadway run as part of Playwrights Horizons’ 2023-2024 season, opening on March 8th in New York City.
RUE MORGUE caught up with Jackson and Jacobs in advance of the musical’s opening to discuss the choice to adapt Teeth, the road there and why the horror genre serves as an appropriate avenue to tell such a story.
I would love to know, what is your relationship to the horror genre?
Michael R. Jackson: I sort of historically always was, like, very stressed out by horror movies, but I would go to them anyway. And in the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a horror concept for a film. And so, I’ve been throwing myself into the horror genre sort of full throttle.
Anna K. Jacobs: I’m somebody who has an extremely low terror threshold and can barely sit through like five minutes of a horror movie. I just find it so overwhelming. And I have a hyperactive imagination. But when I went and saw Sweeney Todd, the musical, for the first time, I realized how much I loved horror on stage, partly because there’s a little bit of distance between you and the performers. And I realized that was my way into the genre.
Michael, you won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for A Strange Loop. What was your approach in seeking out your next project?
MRJ: The honest truth is that I had sort of been working on many things at the same time while working on A Strange Loop. So, I had been working on my next piece, White Girl in Danger, halfway through working on A Strange Loop, and TEETH was sort of shortly after that. So, they all were kind of cross-pollinating at a certain point. For TEETH, specifically, the source material came my way, and I was interested in it. So, I don’t really seek out projects necessarily. They sort of come to me.
Anna, were you familiar with the film before you got involved with the project? Had you heard of it or seen it?
AKJ: No, I hadn’t. Michael had brought it to me, and we were just looking for an opportunity to work together on a piece, and he was really passionate about it, and I watched it, and I saw that it was larger than life, which suggested to me that it would make great source material for a musical, and that’s how we got started on it.
And when you got started, what was the deciding factor for both of you to work together on this particular story?
AKJ: I think it was probably deciding to try a song out, I guess, which was the title song, which we then took out of the musical for many years and have only recently put back in.
That leads to another question. You’ve workshopped this show, and there was a concert at NYC’s 54 below. How has TEETH THE MUSICAL evolved from conception to now?
MRJ: Oh, I mean, hundreds of ways. Many different iterations and points of focus, characters, had different points of view, and the story, over time, has evolved. I mean, [in] countless ways.
AKJ: Yeah, I mean, like Michael said, I think in terms of plot and character. We’ve explored a lot of different avenues. We utilize kind of, like, a chorus, and the identity of that chorus has shifted over time. Also, a couple of months ago, I went back and I counted how many songs we’ve cut from the musical, and it’s upwards of 32. So that sort of gives you some idea of just how many drafts we have worked through since we started the piece back in 2012.
That’s wild. That’s a lot of hard work. Teeth is certainly a dark comedy and TEETH, the musical, is being advertised as a musical comedy. What’s your approach to finding the balance between horrific, serious subject matter and humor?
MRJ: For me, I think of the musical as being a horror within a horror because it starts in a sort of heightened but real place of religious fervor and purity – obsession. And there’s a kind of humor that just naturally comes out of that that then takes a dark turn, of course. And so, I think it’s just about really honoring the characters and the situation, the form and the content and letting it lead you where it leads you.
AKJ: Yeah, I think the comedy in our musical is very much reflective of Michael’s wit and something that Michael, I think, does exceptionally well is write about extraordinary circumstances or characters but from this kind of recognizable and truthful place. So, even though what they’re doing and experiencing is completely out there, you’re recognizing pieces of yourself – often awkward and uncomfortable pieces of yourself – in those characters, and I think when that happens to me, I can’t help but laugh in reaction.
Did you work with a sensitivity reader or an intimacy coordinator in the development of this musical?
AKJ: Not in the development, but we are currently working in production with Crista Jackson, who is an intimacy coordinator and a very gifted one. This is my first time ever working with somebody in that capacity on a show and something that I discovered is that she’s very much an artist in the same way that our choreographer, Raja Feather Kelly, is an artist, or our director, Sarah Benson, is an artist. She is thinking of the most creative and meaningful and artful ways to stage intimacy in the production, and in a way, that’s melded beautifully with the music.
What is it about the horror genre that allows for the telling of a story like this?
MRJ: I think that there’s a mythological obsession – a mythological-political-cultural obsession – with female bodies and anatomy, and I think that because of that, the horror genre is one wherein that obsession can sort of be made real, and so it makes sense to me that that genre would be one where that fear and obsession could be explored.
AKJ: I would add that a lot of TEETH addresses sexual violence and the rather serious topic of bodily autonomy, and I think when you put it through the filter of a genre like horror – but also of musical theater – it allows the audience to have a little bit of distance, so that rather than shut down or tune out, they’re actually able to engage in it. I think that’s what’s cool about using genre to explore something that’s sensitive or taboo or confronting.
You recently did a live Reddit session, and one user asked the strange, yet kind of curious, weird, too-obvious question, “Will the vagina get its own song?” Michael, your response was “Not exactly, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear what she has to say.” Can you expound on that?
MRJ: I was just being cheeky, but the answer is no. There’s not a singing vagina to be found in TEETH, and yet, there is voice given to the idea of female rage through the body, through which the vagina is a symbol, and so, that’s pretty much what I meant.
AKJ: Right. Not just female rage but female power, female creativity, like … all of the good shit! …that can be traced back to the vag!
Michael, A Strange Loop delved into religious trauma and sexual exploration and trauma and those are also themes in TEETH. Is that something that you’re specifically interested in exploring through your own art?
MRJ: Yeah, that’s certainly been a theme that I’ve been exploring in all of my writing since I first started writing short stories as a teenager. It was certainly my way into TEETH, specifically, that was my hook. There was this teen evangelical with teeth in her vagina, and seeing this clash between the religious and the sexual and the confusion that can come from trying to confine someone in that way. That was certainly a part of my story growing up, and a lot of the questions that I had coming out of growing up in the church and, like, reading the Bible – and really reading the Bible – which is its own kind of horror text if you really look at some of the stories and morals and values that are espoused in it. I had just long been fascinated with the extremities of the Bible and of religious ideology and of ideologies that function like religious ideologies, which is also part of TEETH. I’m always drawn to those extremes because they can be kind of fascinating, if terrifying, places to go.
I know you’re in rehearsal right now, and I don’t know how engaged you are with the staging of the piece, but in terms of horror props or special effects, have you come across any challenges so far?
AKJ: I haven’t. Like… the sky’s the limit, you know, with this production. A lot of love has been given to that aspect of the production, and I don’t want to give anything away, but I think something that theatergoers can also plan to experience is an extremely visceral, heightened experience when they see it up on stage.
What can horror fans who might not necessarily be theatergoers expect when attending TEETH THE MUSICAL.
MRJ: A lot of blood.
AKJ: And some hummable tunes.
TEETH THE MUSICAL opens Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on Monday, March 8. Get your tickets here!